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NFL's 2018 Coaching Carousel Slow to Get in Motion for Risk-Averse NFL

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 5, 2018

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 12:  Head Coach Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals on the sidelines during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.  The Titans defeated the Bengals 24-20.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

In Tampa Bay, ownership was torn. They wanted Jon Gruden, but the price was high—very high.

How much money did he want? "All of it," joked one league source.

Tampa Bay determined the only way to get Gruden was to back up a cargo truck, fill it with cash, add final say on personnel matters, and maybe some bananas, and Gruden would have been set.

The Buccaneers balked, according to three sources familiar with the talks, mostly over Gruden's salary demands, which approached $10 million a year. The sources added there was never serious discussion from Gruden's side about wanting an ownership stake.

Now all indications are that Gruden will be coaching the Oakland Raiders next season.

In Cincinnati, there was a different level of consternation over the future. Marvin Lewis made the Bengals talented and interesting to watch, but he's also 0-7 in the playoffs during his 15 years as the head coach.

Many of the Bengals' assistants thought they were all going to be fired after the season ended. "Some of us were calling around about jobs," said one assistant. "Then came word we were staying. I was shocked."

In the end, the Bengals brought Lewis back because they didn't think they'd find anyone better.

This weekend, as you watch the playoffs, there's another postseason happening out of view, with teams putting together the pieces from a failed year and using this time to begin rebuilding, so next year maybe they can be among those readying for the playoffs.

But what was expected to be a much more active firing and hiring season has instead turned into one of the most sluggish. That has left many around the league, as the Bengals assistant said, "shocked."

Shocked because there have been so few firings and just one big name hired in Gruden.

The Buccaneers had some early discussions about a reunion with Jon Gruden before deciding they couldn't match what he was being offered by the Raiders.
The Buccaneers had some early discussions about a reunion with Jon Gruden before deciding they couldn't match what he was being offered by the Raiders.Reinhold Matay/Associated Press

Owners, in many cases, are making the decision that the devil they know is better than the unknown.

"You're going to have to start from scratch regardless," Lewis said at his press conference this week, "so you might as well start from scratch with someone you understand, you know."

Lewis later added, speaking of NFL owners: "I think sometimes there's a tendency to think that the grass is greener, and it doesn't necessarily end up that way often. So I think if they feel good about the relationship they have and where they're headed that way, I think it's a little different that way."

Teams like the Bengals are the epitome of anti-risk taking. But there are more than a few teams that have decided on enjoying a staycation since Sunday. The Broncos kept Vance Joseph after a disappointing 5-11 season and the Browns kept Hue Jackson despite 0-16. 

The problem is there's as much risk to playing it safe as there is to being aggressive. Patriots owner Robert Kraft was told by other owners not to hire Bill Belichick, but he did it anyway and the result has been Hall of Fame careers for both. What if Kraft had decided to play it safe?

That brings us back to the Bengals and the Buccaneers. They will be a true test of this "play-it-safe" approach.

Neither move, nor lack of one, is getting good reviews so far. Across the league, the belief is that both teams are postponing the inevitable.

As noted above, even the Bengals assistants expected a change. At least one had begun talking to his family about the possibility of moving to another city and team before news emerged Lewis was staying.

What makes this even more interesting is considering the choices that weren't made, the possibilities that were discussed and otherwise cast aside, opening the door to a host of what-if questions.

During his podcast on JoeBucsFan.com, longtime NFL writer Ira Kaufman spoke of how Gruden returning to the Buccaneers was potentially closer than we think: 

Bengals owner Mike Brown surprised members of his own coaching staff with his decision to bring Marvin Lewis back for another two years.
Bengals owner Mike Brown surprised members of his own coaching staff with his decision to bring Marvin Lewis back for another two years.John Minchillo/Associated Press

"By Friday, Oakland had emerged as a major player, talking to Gruden's agent," Kaufman said. "Nobody talks to Gruden directly, everything goes through Gruden's agent, as it should be. … Here comes Oakland. Mark Davis, Al's son. And in the discussions … the agent gets the impression, 'Whatever you guys want. Let's make this happen. Whatever you want.' Well, when he gets back to the Glazers and basically says, 'We have other options, and [a] concrete option in Oakland, and they're willing to do this, and do this and do this.'

"And I think it reached a point where the Glazers, talking among themselves, the co-chairmen, said, 'We can't go that far. We're not willing to go that far. A stake in the team. Ten million dollars. Total authority. We can't do it. It doesn't make any sense.' … And at that point they reached the same conclusion that I wrote 10 days ago: If you can't get Gruden, give [Dirk] Koetter another chance."

So the Buccaneers went the safe route. They kept their coach.

So did the Bengals, Browns and Broncos.

We'll see if it works.

            

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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